uMama is a collection of stories by forty great South Africans, celebrating their mothers and grandmothers. Leaders from the world of politics, business, music, sport, education and literature pay homage to the women who have influenced and inspired them to lead exceptional lives.
In compiling this book, Marion Keim asked South African women and men from different backgrounds and walks of life to write a story about what their mother or grandmother meant to them, about the values and insights she passed on and what stayed with them because of her. Some found it easy to write, others took a bit longer, but still came forward with the most amazing stories.
The intention of this book is not to create any laureates or odes; rather, the book should be seen as a collection of stories which speak to all of us directly, in our wonderful, multicultural society about a universal phenomenon – our mothers and grandmothers and what they mean for us today.
Extracts from the book, uMama
METI MNTAKA-NGWENYA (THE CHILD OF NGWENYA)
Nomakula Meti Sophie Ngwenya, born 12 January 1936 in Shalaston (Charliestown), died 28 April 2006 in Dobsonville
“Nomakula Meti Ngwenya was one of ten children born to Sisi S and Sdintsi. She was the second child born into a modest family of Swazi heritage. Raised by her paternal grandmother, Maliyavuza, in Nigel, Meti later moved to Newcastle where she spent her teenage years brought up by her aunt and uncle, Ali and Vese Nyembe. Meti matured into a beautiful and hard-working woman.
One day a young man called Puti Habakuk ‘Rex’ Machaka came into Meti’s life, and they got married. He was eighteen years her senior, and extremely handsome. Rex was also gifted with a melodious voice, but I remember Mom couldn’t sing a note. They were blessed with three daughters: Skhumbuzo Doreen, Hendrica Refiloe and me, Moloko Yvonne. My father used to refer to Doreen as Maruping, a beautiful Pedi name. He would refer to Refiloe as Maputi, which was his mother’s name. Often he would tenderly call her ‘Mme’. Even though I was the youngest he would call me ‘Gogo’. I loved this. I knew then that he was pleased with me.”
GRACEFUL, GRACIOUS, ELEGANT
Grace Nonhlupho Mngoma (nee Mondlane), born 20 December 1923 in Western Native Township, died 15 August 1987 in Empangeni
“Graceful. Gracious. Elegant. Those are the three words that always come to mind when I think of my mother.
She Married Khabi Vivian Mngoma on 26 October 1848, and my brother Lindumuzi Lester and I were the offspring that came of that union.
Mama was such a beautiful soul, both inside and out. Fair of skin, medium-sized body, to me she was the symbol of elegance. Even though in her later years she suffered from ill health, she very rarely complained, unless we were particularly unkind and paid no attention to her. And that happened sometimes.
Her elegance manifested itself not only in her carriage and dress sense, and she was a stylish dresser, but also in the way she related to others.
I very rarely saw my mother angry. If something or someone really got to her, she would say, ‘Fancy, you know so-and-so has just done this or said that.’ Then we knew she was angry.”
Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu, born 21 October 1918 in the Tsomo district of the Transkei
“Albertina Sisulu is my maternal grandmother. She is known to many South Africans as Mama Sisulu or Mama. My granddad used to call her Tini (short for Albertina). My granny is a well known figure in South Africa, having been the wife of an ANC stalwart. She is a substantial historical figure in her own right, of course. She was a founding member of the ANC Women’s League. She was instrumental in organising the famous Women’s March in 1956 to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where more than twenty thousand women protested against the repressive pass laws. She was the first woman to be arrested under the apartheid ninety-day detention law that allowed for imprisonment without trial. A lot has been written about her and I therefore find it a rather intimidating task to write about her here. Having mulled it over for a while I figured the best thing to do would be to share some of my most memorable moments with her.”
TWO ‘FIRST’ LADIES AHEAD OF THEIR TIME
Mathilda (Tilly) First, 1898(?)-1992, born in Johannesburg; Ruth First (nee First), 1925-1982, born in Johannesburg, died in Maputo (pictured)
“My grandmother Tilly First left school at thirteen. Her career was not supposed to be important. She was only a girl who was born in the dying days of the nineteenth century. Her life’s aspiration must there-fore, conventional wisdom dictated, be to marry and have children. But first, it fell to her, the daughter of impoverished immigrants, to earn the money to put her brother through his accountancy course. So she would get up early to iron her brother’s shirts and make his lunch and then she would go out to work, at first in a shoe shop and later in a place that sold furniture on hire purchase to poor white miners.
This job was what politicised her. In 1922 the miners went on strike. It was partly a racist strike – the white miners were trying to stop the mine owners from putting Africans into some ‘white’ jobs. But when Tilly saw how her boss repossessed miners’ furniture as soon as they failed to make a weekly payment (and this despite the fact that he must have known that, as soon as the strike was over, the miners would repay him) her eyes opened. She began to understand how hard ordinary people worked and how little they gained from it. Thus began her journey into radicalism.”
REMEMBERING THE EMPTY SPACE
Helga Bassel, born 2 July 1908 in Berlin, died 26 May 1969 in Cape Town
“Losing a mother is something we all will go through in our lives. But it was not to be part of my life. Her suicide was my intoduction to death. By then both my grandmothers had died of old age. That was sad but inevitable. My stern Afrikaans Ouma Uys and my eccentric Viennese Oma Bassel communicated with one another carefully in a third language. Their collective broken English was terrible but understandable. They were great friends against all the odds.
Suicide is different to dying of old age. After that moment nothing that happens can be more terrible. I am numb when it comes to death. I’m sorry when it happens to other people, but it feels as if someone has just left the room and moved on never to return. Maybe that’s all it is. But my mother returns with every memory, every smell and colour, every sound of music.
Where her picture in the forefront of my mind had been now hangs a jagged, torn emptiness which will never be repaired. I now imagine a gold frame round it and remember who had been there once.”
My grandmother, Maria Lewis, born 8 February 1933 in Bredasdorp; my mother, Stawa, born Gustava Willemse, on 14 June 1963 in Grabouw
“People think of me and perhaps they remember the Springbok with the best smile of 2003; the man with the green gum guard who seemed to disappear for a long time after 2004, only to make a surprise comeback just in time to be included in the Bok team of 2007, the team that went on to win the World Cup. People may even remember that in 2003 I was Springbok of the Year, Newcomer of the Year and also, as voted by his teammates, Players’ Player of the Year. That was a good year. Those who know more may even think of me as the Springbok who came from a life of gangsterism, drugs, crime and a failed teen suicide attempt. Those were not good years.
What people don’t know is that I never met my father until after school. They don’t know that I am the product of the love, faith and strength of two incredible women – my mother and my grandmother.
My grandmother was born Maria Lewis on 8 February 1933 in Bredasdorp and my mother, Stawa, was born Gustava Willemse on 14 June 1963 in Grabouw.”